By the Editors at Oct 20, 2011 7:00 PM ET

Herman Cain has talked about an electrified fence. Michele Bachmann prefers a “double- walled” model to keep out “anchor babies.” And everyone but Texas Governor Rick Perry agrees that young illegal immigrants who have grown up in the U.S. shouldn’t have the same access to higher education as the children of citizens.

As they seek to appease nativist rumblings on the right, Republican candidates for president appear willing to take ever-tougher approaches toward illegal immigration.

Perry, the self-described “authentic conservative” of the field, is the exception. As governor of a border state with more than 9 million Hispanic residents, he signed into law a Dream Act enabling undocumented immigrants to attend Texas state schools at in-state tuition rates. “We need to be educating these children because they will become a drag on our society,” Perry explained at a debate in Orlando, Florida, last month. His opponents piled on, and Perry’s standing in the polls tanked.

What sort of world would Perry’s opponents prefer? For a vision of an anti-immigrant Eden, Alabama is a good place to start. On Oct. 14, a federal appeals court temporarily blocked elements of the state’s new immigration law, enjoining it from forcing schools to determine their students’ legal status or requiring police to file criminal charges against immigrants who lack federal papers and appear to be in the country illegally.
No Border State

Unlike Arizona, which made waves with its strict anti- immigration law, Alabama isn’t a border state — and it’s hardly a beacon for illegal immigrants. According to Census data, only 4 percent of its population is Hispanic and only 3 percent is foreign-born. (The comparable numbers nationally are 16 percent and 12 percent.) Yet immigrants who came north to work in Alabama’s fields and chicken- processing plants have inspired what backers of the legislation known as HB 56 proudly call the nation’s “toughest” anti-immigration law. It requires police to demand proof of legal status if they have “reasonable suspicion” that someone is in the country illegally; it bars undocumented immigrants from using a wide range of public services and prohibits anyone from transporting an illegal immigrant in a vehicle.

The law’s constitutionality will be decided in due time; its ill-advisedness is already clear.

Here are some of the law’s immediate consequences: Fearful immigrant parents, mostly Hispanic, have pulled their children out of Alabama schools. While some of the state’s more than 2,000 absent students have returned to classes, others have not. Uneducated children of undocumented parents are unlikely to be a boon to the nation’s social fabric or to economic growth.

Due to what one commercial landscaper called Alabama’s “negative atmosphere,” legal Hispanic residents are leaving the state, creating shortages of workers in construction and agriculture. As Bloomberg News reported in June, the post-tornado reconstruction of Tuscaloosa has been hindered by a lack of skilled labor, partly because, after the law was passed, Hispanic tradesmen began leaving the state. Meantime, during the recent harvest, tomatoes and other crops were left rotting in north Alabama’s fields.

There are other economic costs. Rental properties are going empty; stores and restaurants catering to immigrants have lost customers. Supporters of the legislation argue that by kicking employed immigrants out, they have created an equal number of job openings for unemployed Alabamans.
Zero-Sum Game

Employment isn’t a zero-sum game. One reason job growth in Texas has been high is a steady influx of immigrants — from Mexico and from other states. If immigration killed economies, New York, Los Angeles and other cities with high numbers of illegal immigrants would be disaster zones. It’s worth noting that 40 percent of last year’s Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants.

So what’s the answer? The Obama administration has been far more aggressive than its predecessor in cracking down on illegal immigration. It has significantly strengthened border enforcement, increased border seizures and deported a record number of illegal immigrants. None of these actions has noticeably mitigated the challenges posed by illegal immigration or anti-immigrant sentiment. Call it “amnesty” if you like, but a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants remains the only sensible resolution.

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